Home » The Tor Project, Protecting Online Anonimity: Jacob Appelbaum at TEDxFlanders (Transcript)

The Tor Project, Protecting Online Anonimity: Jacob Appelbaum at TEDxFlanders (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of journalist and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum’s TEDx Talk: The Tor Project, Protecting Online Anonimity at TEDxFlanders conference. This event occurred on October 20, 2012.

Jacob Appelbaum – Computer security researcher

Hi there. It’s a great pleasure to be here and I’m really excited, actually, to see so many familiar faces. And I wanted to tell about my story and how I came to work in anonymity. 18 minutes isn’t really a lot of time to sum up a decade of work, but, I’ll try.

And I’ll start by saying that I met Roger Dingledine, Rachel Greenstadt and Nick Mathewson at a Hacker Convention in Las Vegas. And they told me about this idea, this idea of anonymity. This idea that every person has the right to speak freely, the right to read without exception. This idea that it should be available to each person. They introduced me to the philosophy but also to the technology.

And the technology was very fascinating to me. Overall, what I found to be interesting was this idea that not one human should be excepted from the basic human rights, that we, generally, I think, as a world, agree should exist, should be something that is equally accessible to all, regardless of class, race, gender, sexual orientation.

But what does that actually mean? Well, it turns out, for the Tor Project — which is a free software project for freedom, that I and many others work on — what it means is to actually put enabling technology into the hands of each person so that they can choose whether or not they wish to use it.

And so, what Roger and Nick and Rachel and other members of the Tor Project — who are incredibly inspirational to me — what they were able to show me was that by making it free software, this means that each person would be able to inspect the software — should they wish — or to delegate that task to someone who understands that. It means that each person without cost would be able to use the system and it would allow them to communicate across boundaries that previously were not something that they could transgress without serious risk. This kind of idea, it doesn’t seem terribly radical, I think, in the West. But in some parts of the world this is extremely radical, this notion that you have the right to speak freely, that you do not have to add a national ID card to every statement that you sign, that in fact you might want to show evidence of a crime and you don’t want to take any credit at all for that. In some ways it’s a strange thing.

But in some fields it makes sense. We all have our own personal relationship to privacy and to anonymity. And, we just don’t call it that, usually. So, everyone in this room seems to be wearing clothes, as an example. I want to use the example of curtains in the window but the Dutch, well — curtains and windows that’s not really a good privacy enhancing technology since so many people seem to not use them. But clothes are a good one, because clothes are an example of how technology and society may not be perfect, but we’re still going to try anyway.

And so, what Tor as an anonymity system is trying to do is to give us some autonomy, so that we have the ability to choose when we wish, a thing which we do not claim as perfect, but we claim is better than what we have without this system.

And, what is that exactly? It’s a simple piece of software that you install on your computer or onto your telephone, that can be used with web browsers, with chat programs or whatever you’d like. So if you want to leak a document to the New York Times, or to a reputable source like WikiLeaks, then you could very easily use something like Tor to do that. It is essentially agnostic in the sense that if it runs over the protocol known as TCP/IP, that’s specifically TCP, then that will be something that will work with Tor.

So, if you use the Internet, you’re probably able to do a lot of the things you do on the Internet with Tor. But, to actually talk about why you would want to do that, we sort of have to address what it is that we want to think about. And so, when we talk about anonymity in the Tor project, it usually creates a strange feeling for people. For example, they say, “Well, you know, I don’t really have anything to hide” or “Well, I’m using this service and they promised that they won’t, you know, they won’t do anything bad with that data.” So what we want to do is to create a clear dividing line between what we would call privacy by policy and privacy by design.

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Privacy by policy is where a group of people collect all of your private — ostensibly private — communications and information, and they promise that they’re not going to give it to anyone else. Sounds like a great deal right? So, think about it this way: how many of you, if I could have a show of hands in the audience, would be willing to have a stranger, completely — have all of the information on your government issued ID cards and everything in your wallet, which was issued by an agency of some kind or a company how many of people here would just empty their wallet on the street and show all of that to a random passer-by that asked for it? Anybody here? I’m glad there is at least one person. Thanks!

Well, this is an interesting thing, because many of you didn’t raise your hands. I think you probably thought that was the right answer. But, as it just so happens, the interesting notion here is this idea that, somehow, because you don’t show it to someone, because the State keeps it in confidence, that it’s private. Well how could it be private information if the State forces you to give it up? That’s kind of strange. And that only certain members of a privilege class — of privilege employee class, no-less — are allowed to have access to that information in an unfettered manner. Well, that’s strange, to me, that that would be considered private. But that’s the kind of privacy by policy. And sometimes it works all right. So it works really well in cases where it is especially not important that that information is not released.

So, in the case of, say, you’re a victim of domestic violence, it is probably the case that if that information exists somewhere, and someone could get it, it would be quite damaging to you. It could be damaging to your literal life. So, in a privacy by design world, what we might do is create a system where you no longer release your real home address when you need to give that up. In the State where I live in the United States, there’s the thing called the address confidentiality program. And what they do is they give you a special card and this card allows you to say that this is your home address. But if an abusive person exists within one of these State’s agencies, — say you being harassed by a law enforcement, as an example — then if you are in this database, then it would allow you to make sure that the only people that could get that information were people who could get it from the agency that keeps it safe, including from all of the other agencies. This is a kind of privacy by design system, but still a not very strong one. Because ultimately, the authority to release your information rests with someone other than you.

So with Tor, what we’re trying to create is a system — and we have created this system — where that isn’t the paradigm. The paradigm is an absolute privacy by design system, given certain constraints. So, assuming that, the person that wishes to know you are cannot watch the entire Internet, all at the same time. When you use the Tor network, your local network, that is usually the place where censorship and surveillance occur in a way that is linked to you, to your national ID card, to your credit card, to billing information, that connection only sees that you’re connecting to this anonymity network. So that’s really fascinating because it means that when you visit a website or when you visit a service of some kind, it does not know that you’re in Belgium anymore.

So if you’ve ever seen one of these movies where they trace a hacker all the way around the world, and they say, “Oh, they’re over here! Oh, they’re over here!”, it sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true. What Tor enables you to do is exactly that, except that the tracing stops at the Tor network. And the idea is to compartmentalize this because if you have to trust one agency to never betray you that means there’s only one agency, there’s only one group, there’s only one database that needs to be compromised to ruin your day. And in some cases, the things that are disclosed — perhaps a disease status, perhaps what gender you’re actually born regardless of how you present — these things become public information in a way that cannot be non-public again.

So, if you happen to be doing research for business, if you happen to be doing this in some context that has legal ramifications, that kind of thing can destroy your career. But if you happen to be a gay rights activist in Uganda, it could also be the end of your life. Where surveillance is often in support of authoritarianism, and specifically in support of violence.

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Surveillance is one of the pieces of the puzzle that allows an authoritarian regime to do serious harm to people. Because it is the all-seeing eye. It knows who you talk to, it knows what you say, — these kinds of so called lawful interception systems — they can cause a lot of harm. So what Tor seeks to do is not to go to war with these countries, where — we’ll call them Overthereastan — that’s not the goal. The goal is to empower each person to choose whether or not they wish to have the ability to speak freely. Each person gets to choose whether or not they are going to read a thing and not have to suffer the consequences of having read a thing.

Because when we talk about privacy, we’re actually talking about dignity. We’re talking about autonomy. And we’re talking about the ability for each of us to develop as a human without that exploration phase, which hopefully last our whole lives, without part of that exploration phase irreparably damaging our lives. This notion of “it will go down on your permanent record” has never been more true than it is now. Because it is the case, that what we do, it is recorded. And, unfortunately, it is not just a problem of Overthereastan, it is a problem here.

For example, Bits of Freedom, in the Netherlands recently published a document about the so called “Clean IT” program. And this program essentially seeks to monitor the entire Internet. Even when people in this room are not suspected of a crime all of the things they do, all of the places they go with their cellphones, — which are tracking devices that make phone calls — All of that data would be used and would be allowed to be retroactively used to police, which sounds fantastic except it gets rid of this presumption of innocence.

And then, instead it creates this chilling effect where the things that we do, the places that we have gone, the people we have associated with, the people we have talked to, and in some cases, in many cases in fact the full content of what we have said all of that information being recorded, proactively. And then when someone needs to find, allegedly, a criminal, then that data is there for them. But the problem is that data that is retained, for example in the data retention policies of the European Union, well, it tells a story about you potentially, that is made up of facts, but is not necessarily true to the narrative that someone else has told with those facts.

So to give an example, I know of a person by second relation who, while being surveilled, decided that he wanted a free day. And so he put his train, which he takes all of the time, onto his schedule as he always does, and he put his phone into the train, and he got off at the next stop. And the train took a long ride through the entirety of the country, as it often does, and he was never there. And it just so happens that because this fellow was under surveillance or so the story goes, they were very confused that they missed him. It turns out that the battery died on the train. So they thought that he’d given them the slip.

Well, that may actually be the case but they didn’t really actually understand how that was. And allegedly, the train returned to the city in which it was originally coming from and at that point he went to the train station, picked up the phone because he had lost it, and then he went home and plugged it back in. And of course then, he was at home.

And allegedly, later, it was discussed how they just couldn’t figure out how he had given them the slip. And of course the irony is that they were so reliant on this data, and they were so sure that the data was perfect, that they couldn’t even consider for a moment that their preconceived notions were wrong. But that’s actually the story that all of us will be able to tell very soon. In fact, most of us probably already can tell that story.

So, what Tor is trying to do is to move technologies such that it’s not a tracking device that makes phone calls, but it’s a thing that empowers you to communicate with other people. It’s a thing that allows you to browse the web, but without your health insurance — in the US, of course, this is a problem — your health insurance companies deciding they won’t give you coverage because people in your area happen to search for symptoms related to cancer. Well, I’m not from a civilized country, I apologize! But that said — Uh, that’s fantastic, ha-ha! Thomas and I were discussing actually how in some ways the US is kind of like the Third World and he says, “No, you have rich people.” Fantastic!

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So, the key point here though is that we should not suggest that privacy by policy, especially when combined with secrecy, will lead to a more just world. Right, so, in a sense what I want to do is tell you all about the technology, I want to tell you about the software. But technology is a weird thing. Because it dis-empowers people who are otherwise totally literate.

And so if we talk about computers and if we talk about networks, it’s boring as hell, for probably almost everybody in the audience. And reasonably so, it’s totally boring! I come at this from the human rights perspective. I like technology but it’s a means to an end. And it is a means in itself that is equally accessible, that is overly available and it is free software. It’s openly specified, it’s peer reviewed and it isn’t perfect.

But what it has allowed people to do, it’s allowed people to make that choice, when they otherwise didn’t have a choice. So during the Green Revolution in Iran, in 2008, in 2009, 2010 — it’s still ongoing depending on who you talk to, people use this to circumvent what’s colloquially referred to as the “Potato Wall” or, the Iranian version of the Great Firewall of China. In some cases, we’re doing pretty well. There is a cat and mouse game though, so in China if you try to use Tor on your computer, it doesn’t work very well. Sometimes it works quite well, sometimes you just can’t connect. But that’s okay.

Because that means Tor essentially acts as an alarm, and it let you know that actually, while you think that the Internet is safe, while you think that your communications are not being monitored, that you — as being not a criminal — are not under deep suspicion and you don’t have anything to hide and so on. But then you know actually that none of these things are true, because Tor doesn’t work for you. And the place in which you’re at, it does not allow you to freely communicate without them being able to record what it is that you’ve read, what it is that you’ve said. So it’s nice because it can help dispel that notion. That notion that, you’re not actually under surveillance.

There’s a great quote from the 18th century, which is quite long, so I won’t repeat the entire thing, but the general gist of the quote is: people, when they are under surveillance, are already imprisoned. This notion, which I think is less in Europe than it is in the United States, or, in actually plenty of other places, but, this notion is I think a good one to keep in mind. I think a lot of people here understand this and yet Europe has mandatory data retention, not just for phone call related stuff, but regarding Internet. All Internet communications. And that to me is a serious and egregious human rights violation. And if we look at it, to tie it back to my own story here, I’ve been the target of grand jury in the United States, which is a way that the department of justice — which is an ironically named department — the way that the department of justice decides whether or not they’re going to prosecute someone, like myself, for espionage.

They did this because they fundamentally don’t believe in freedom of association, and because of my friendship with someone like Julian Assange, and work WikiLeaks, they’ve used massive dragnets of surveillance, including, I believe, the NSA’s worthless wiretapping data which should have never been collected in the first place. They’ve subpoenaed through their legal instruments, overreachingly I might add, my Tweeter account, my Gmail account, they’ve done it for my ISP, for my telephone companies, I’ve even had bank accounts shut down as a result but I’ve never once been charged or arrested. And so I use Tor, specifically because I understand that I am not free and that this is not a problem such as in Overthereastan but it is actually everywhere, and this surveillance is a threat to the very fundamental core of democracy, because with total surveillance comes the ability for someone to completely and totally destroy democracy.

And so I ask you, if you wish, and you do care about technology, to simply help people who are not just in my situation, but who are in many other situations by running a Tor relay. Thank you.

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